#MissingEpisodesMonday: Reasons for Optimism

Two weeks after the excitement of the Power of the Daleks animation announcement, and fan excitement for the missing episodes has fizzled out somewhat. It’s pretty easy to guess why – with rumours abounding that there had been a secret screening of episode one of Power, it had become part and parcel of the whole omnirumour. The animation of the entire story has proven quite effective in killing off the anticipation and expectation that a large scale recovery is on the cards.

The animation announcement also stifled the appearance of a certain Philip Morris at the Starburst Convention the week before. Where ordinarily fans would dissect and dine out on such talks for weeks on end, enthusiasm has proven somewhat curbed thanks to the Power animation. This is a pity – because in certain respects the talk (which you can download using THIS LINK) has some interesting gems to grab hold of.

While most Doctor Who fans are obviously interested in cutting to the chase (“Where’s Marco Polo?!!”) it is well worth understanding the wider background to Phil’s work as an archivist. Aside from being genuinely interesting (hey – I’m a historian, I would say that!) it also helps us to understand Phil’s motivation and modus operandi – the aim is never specifically the recovery of high profile British television – however much we might wish it to be the case! The hub of Phil’s work is the premise that there is no reason why film material should be lost in a digital age. If the material exists, and it can be salvaged, then it is imperative to clean it, restore it, and transfer it to a stable medium. Listen to the talk itself for the detail, but the salient point is there – Phil’s work is concerned with ensuring that any kind of media material is not permanently lost.

How does this help us? Well, there are two useful clues hidden away in his observations. Firstly, there is the wider comment on his work in Africa. Phil’s mission is to salvage ALL television archives he finds; as he winsomely puts it: “this is their heritage.” His equipment for doing this lives in the UK, so everything he finds gets shipped back to Phil’s base so that he can transfer it to a secure (ie. digital) medium, to then give back to the original broadcasters. Just this fact alone gives us some sense of the huge project Phil is working on. Anyone who has ever tried scanning in their old photo negatives (like I did once!) knows its time consuming. Phil obviously has tools and resources and expertise to do all of this much more quickly, but it’s still time consuming, and involves getting the film material out of the country and back to England. With that in view, it’s no wonder it may take time to recover lost Doctor Who.

As an aside, this may also explain the delay in recovering any Doctor Who Phil has found. Even if Studio A had all 97 missing episodes sitting on a shelf somewhere, the price of recovering them could well be that the rest of their stock needs to be archived first. Phil stressed not only that archiving was good in it’s own right, but also that it was important for building relationships with station managers and other archive holders.

The second interesting point relates specifically to a painful reality that most fans are now reluctantly accepting- that Web of Fear episode 3 is currently in the hands of a private collector. While a comfort that only 96 episodes of Doctor Who are missing, it doesn’t do us much good while the film is stashed where the majority of fans will never get to see it. And yet Phil gives us grounds for optimism – admitting that he does talk to private collectors, and encourage these collectors to talk to him. And we come back to his modus operandi – his crucial, vitally important modus operandi: preserve cultural heritage at all costs.

Phil’s determination that no material should ever be lost means that his first question to a collector is not “can we have that back please?”, but instead is “Can I help you to preserve the film print?” He accepts that if he gets a reputation as a nasty man who will go blabbing to the BBC when he discovers a private collector has something that ought to be returned, private collectors will say nothing. The longer they say nothing, the longer the film degenerates, potentially to the point of no return.

Out of the entire talk, it was this little snippet, more even than “You will get more Doctor Who when you least expect it!” that most interested me. I think the nightmare scenario for most fans is the prospect that Joanna Bloggs is sitting on a rapidly dissolving copy of Tenth Planet episode 4, which will turn into a sad shriveled heap of vinegar by the time she dies off and leaves it to her disinterested heirs. Phil’s approach offers the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, a collector might be persuaded to ensure their valuable film collection gets securely transferred to something more secure and enduring. In short – if there are other orphans (or indeed complete adventures) in the hands of individuals, then Phil’s approach gives us the best hope that they might yet see the light of day.

I still sense there is an even bigger story behind all of this, but Phil’s comments at Starburst have given me optimism that we can rescue whatever is out there to be rescued. I grant you that I approach this with the patience and optimism of one who (hopefully!) still has more than 50 per cent remaining of his mortal span, but I am not yet letting go of my hope that there is more missing Doctor Who to be found – and that thanks to the efforts of Philip Morris and his team, their survival rates are now better than ever!

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